GRAND FORKS -- The Friday of Homecoming week, Oct. 22, was a day of ceremonies on the UND campus. Late in the day, President Andrew Armacost said he’d been to six. I attended three, and it was the sixth that most interested me.
It honored Gerald VandeWalle, a UND graduate twice over and the state’s longest serving Supreme Court justice. The moot court room in the university’s law school building has been named for him, the latest of a string of honors including the state’s highest, The Roughrider Award. The room filled up late Friday, mostly with attorneys. I was there as a journalist.
In fact, I’m working on a biography of VandeWalle. Just about everybody calls him “The Chief,” because he was chief justice of the court for almost 30 years, the longest tenure of any of the court’s chief justices. He yielded the position to Jon Jensen in early 2020. Jensen had been a district court judge in Grand Forks.
To tell the truth, I’ve already missed the deadline for the biography. It was to have been finished in May – but COVID derailed progress. The Chief himself became a victim of COVID. He spent more than a month in hospital. COVID left a mark, as he himself told me when I visited him in August. He said he was a couple of inches shorter and his feet a couple of sizes larger. The quip underscores an important truth: COVID didn’t damage his mind.
VandeWalle’s brainpower is prodigious by all accounts. I know it because I’ve spent many hours with him, and more important, I’ve undertaken a series of interviews, and everyone I’ve talked to -- from his fellow jurists to political figures and family members -- all have remarked on his keen intelligence.
“The VandeWalle Project,” as I call it, originated with Levi Andrist, a UND law school graduate. Andrist has close connections to VandeWalle. Both grew up in Divide County, and The Chief and Andrist’s grandfather were friends. Grandfather John Andrist owned the Divide County Journal, and I came to know him well through the activities of the North Dakota Newspaper Association. Andrist established a foundation to aid projects in Divide County, and the biography is among them.
VandeWalle’s father arrived in Divide County just before World War I, and he was soon back in his native Belgium fighting for his adopted country. Belgium was an early victim of Kaiser Wilhelm’s aggression, and the VandeWalle family fled to the Netherlands and then to the United States. The Chief’s maternal ancestors were also Belgian and came from the same village in Flanders. The patriarch of that family, surnamed Gits, moved west from Minnesota and quickly became a force in northwest North Dakota. Among his other enterprises, he helped spearhead the drive to create a new county, which became known as Divide.
The Chief’s father operated a dairy farm that supplied milk to the community of Noonan. The portrait of VandeWalle that hangs in the Roughrider Hall of Fame in the state Capitol includes a reference to VandeWalle Dairy. The Chief still owns the land and the cousins who farm the land acknowledge his concern about farm conditions.
VandeWalle graduated from the UND law school in 1958 and went to work in the North Dakota Attorney General's Office, where he spent 20 years. In August 1978, he was appointed to the Supreme Court and in November that year he was elected to the seat. His tenure has now reached 43 years. He became chief justice in 1993 and gave up the role at the end of 2019.
In his years on the court, VandeWalle has written hundreds of opinions. The state Supreme Court is the state’s only appeals court, and it hears about 300 cases a year. These are assigned randomly to one of the court’s five justices, which means that each of them must produce 50 opinions a year, not counting dissents. It’s an enormous amount of work.
That’s where young Andrist comes in. Immediately after graduating from the UND law school, he became The Chief’s clerk. He’s now a partner in a law firm specializing in public policy. That makes him among the most prominent lobbyists at the state Legislature. The Andrist Community Foundation funds the VandeWalle Project through the North Dakota Bar Association Foundation. Lately I have been busy interviewing associates of The Chief, including other justices, political figures, family members and others. The aim is to build an archive.
All of this is preliminary to the point of this column, which is to invite readers who know The Chief to share their stories and perspectives of this remarkable figure. Email them to me at email@example.com -- and don’t delay. I’m already past deadline.
Bill Devlin, a member of the state House of Representatives, called me on a mathematical error in last week’s column. I subtracted 1997 from 2021 and got 14 – clearly an error. I tried to pass it off as a typo, thinking Devlin might overlook the error because he was a newspaperman, publishing and editing the Griggs County Courier at Cooperstown. Still, it’s an error and errors deserve correcting.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.